We’ve all done it—made impulsive decisions. Decisions that favor immediate rewards in lieu of future benefits. Maybe it was eating half a bag of chips on the car ride home from the grocery store, an act that provides instant satisfaction but pushes us a little farther away from our weight loss goals, or something else. At one point or another, we’ve all been guilty of  discounting future pay-offs for immediate gratification. So, what do we do about it? A paper published a few weeks ago in the journal Psychological Science provides some clues.

Noticing that an inability to delay gratification is associated with being overweight and even obese, a group of researchers at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine wondered whether a simple technique designed to get people to think about the future might help lesson people’s tendency to engage in behaviors that lead to immediate gratification—like eating an entire pizza at one sitting.  So, they set out to test their hypothesis.

The researchers invited overweight or obese women (a body mass index of 25 or greater; who were interested in controlling their food intake) to take part in an exercise in which they either listed possible positive future events that might occur (a future thinking group) or thought about an event that occurred recently to someone else (control group).  Women were randomly assigned to one of these two conditions. The researchers recorded people’s reports of the events on an audio recorder.

Later on, the women were asked to think about how appealing a number of comfort foods were—meatballs, French fries, garlic bread, cookies, and dips. They then got 15 minutes to dig in; to eat as much of these foods as they wanted. But, while the women were given the opportunity to pig out, the researchers played back the audio recordings of the women either reporting their future positive events (future thinking group) or the events of someone else (control group).

Women who were reminded of future positive events consumed fewer calories (790 on average) than women in the control group (1095 calories on average)—a significant difference in calories consumed for a group of people who want to curb unhealthy eating habits.

This study was small, so more work is certainly needed to test the benefits of future thinking. And, it’s not yet totally clear what it was about future thinking that resulted in less calories consumed among the overweight women. Nonetheless, this work suggests that there may be simple things we can do (like future thinking) to curb impulsive behavior. Focusing on something positive in the future keeps you on track in the present.

For more on how our thoughts can affect our behavior, check out my book “Choke

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Daniel, T. O. et al. (2013). The Future Is Now: Reducing Impulsivity and Energy Intake Using Episodic Future Thinking. Psychological Science.

About the Author

Sian Beilock, Ph.D.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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